Every so often I put a blog post up, start getting feedback on it, and realize I’ve got things horribly wrong. And then sometimes, very rarely, the opposite happens: I put up a post and discover that I was more right than I ever suspected. My post on Tim Cook’s sexuality is one of those times.
Which is not to say that it’s uncontroversial. I’ve had significant pushback on it, and on this video, from both inside and outside Reuters. The negative responses fall into a few broad categories:
Haven’t we moved on?
This is rarely accompanied by an elucidation of exactly what it is we’re meant to have moved on from. If it’s the kind of world where people are scared to come out at work, then, first, I’m sorry, but we haven’t. There are, obviously, no reliable statistics on how many LGBT people are out at their work, partly because “out” isn’t the nice, binary concept that a lot of journalists would seem to like it to be. (More on that later.) But I can tell you that I’ve had a lot of private feedback from gay professionals thanking me for my post, saying that it’s still hard for them to come out in the workplace, and that more open discussion and open acceptance of executives’ homosexuality is something we’re only beginning to work towards.
It’s still not normal, in most workplaces, to have an open and accepting culture where all gay employees feel comfortable being open about who they are and who they love. Apple, by all accounts, is very good on that front, and Steve Jobs’s other billion-dollar startup, Pixar, is even better. But the very fact that neither Apple nor Tim Cook has ever said anything about this aspect of his identity is a clear indication that people are still worried about it. The closet is an institution designed to protect LGBT individuals from scorn and hatred; without that scorn and hatred, it would not exist. It exists. And, lest we forget, neither the federal government nor most states gives equal rights to gay couples; in most states, including California, it’s still entirely legal for a company to fire someone just for being gay.
More generally, it’s still the exception rather than the rule for successful gay people in the public eye to be out. Some gay people who achieve success feel a responsibility to serve as role models and advocate for equality and public acceptance. That’s great. But what we see very little of is the people who simply don’t hide who they are, and who don’t make a big deal of it — the non-political gays. And the reason we see so little of it is because it’s a very tricky act to pull off. Instead, we have the institution of the “glass closet”. Which is clearly just a stepping stone on the path to full acceptance. So I think it’s reasonable to say that we’re a very long way from having “moved on”.
Why should shareholders care?
The number of things that shareholders care about, with respect to any given company, is as varied as the number of shareholders itself. But certainly there’s no particular or obvious reason why Tim Cook’s homosexuality is relevant to Apple’s shareholders, qua shareholders. As journalists, however, the media has a responsibility to more than just a company’s shareholders: its responsibility lies to the public as a whole. Including millions of gay professionals, their friends, their families, and people who aspire to being gay professionals. For these people, seeing Tim Cook rise to a position of such prominence and power is something to celebrate. If the media keeps that news on the down low, we’re therefore doing a disservice to that large and important part of our readership. Meanwhile, if shareholders don’t care, that’s fine. Most news is of no interest to most people. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be published.
What business is it of mine what Tim Cook does with his genitals?
This isn’t an issue of sex, it’s an issue of sexuality — a central part of who all of us are. It’s about attraction, and identity. Not genitals.
Now admittedly Tim Cook’s sexual identity isn’t any business of yours either. But it’s worth asking who exactly we’re protecting here. Tim Cook hasn’t complained about coverage of his sexuality, but a lot of straight people who don’t know him seem to be very upset about it. It seems a bit like the old attitude of “I don’t care what consenting adults do in private, just so long as they don’t stick it in my face.”